Barbie Really is Everything

Laura J. Burns
Laura J. Burns writes books, writes for TV, and sometimes writes TV based on books and books based on TV. She will never, however, write a poem. She’s the managing editor of The Antagonist.

This article was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

After what seems like a year-long onslaught of PR–the most perfect, spot-on movie marketing campaign in memory–Barbie is finally in theaters. It’s the first film of the summer that feels like a blockbuster, every seat filled and people actually dressing up to go see it. At my showing, the sheer pinkness of the audience was breathtaking, and it was both women and men wearing Barbie’s signature color. More men should wear pink. Gentleman, you look good in it!

After that campaign–Margot Robbie as a living doll in her couture Barbie outfits, Ryan Gosling giving us zany Kenergy quotes–it was hard to know what to expect from the movie itself. And whatever you do expect, it’s probably not what you’ll get.

Readers, Barbie is weird. It’s an acid trip of a film that begins with an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey and ends with a joke about human anatomy, winding its way through Mattel’s history, the battle of the sexes, mother-daughter relationships, existential dread, middle school nastiness, gender imperialism, and several layers of feminist thought, among many other things. Having seen it once, my immediate reactions were that I needed to see it again in order to write about it properly (so consider this your non-proper seat-of-the-pants review) and that next time I will probably want to alter my consciousness in some way first.

Barbie herself is an icon fraught with social baggage–feminists claim her as an example of the independent woman who can be anything she wants, and other feminists blame her for issues like eating disorders and unrealistic body issues among girls. She is relentlessly sexualized and dismissed as stupid by male parts of the culture. And not until the press tour for this film did men apparently realize that her boyfriend, Ken, was of less interest to Barbie (and the girls who play with her) than her clothes, shoes, dream house, and killer convertible. Barbie, in other words, was a walking contradiction, always on tiptoe.

How, then, could anyone make a successful movie about this character? Director Greta Gerwig clearly understood that the answer was to take big chances, get strange with it, and go meta. Barbie’s been around for more than 60 years, she’s got a lot of history to mine. Barbie manages to touch a little bit on all of it, delving into pretty much everything I mentioned in the last paragraph, plus several other Barbie-related social issues for good measure. There’s a lot. For the most part, it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Barbie and Ken both undergo plotlines involving self-discovery, and honestly, it isn’t necessary. For a movie so packed with substance, we didn’t need more, and Barbie’s personal journey drags a bit when you’re ready for the whole crazy adventure to be over. This is a minor quibble, however, because to a large degree all the different risks Gerwig takes–big and small–pay off.

Margot Robbie, a full-on movie star, is perfect in every way. Ryan Gosling has never had so much fun in a movie and I’m so happy he’s remembered that he used to be a Mouseketeer. Simu Liu as Ken was just as terrific, and frankly all the Barbies and Kens were a delight. But special mention has to go to Michael Cera as Allan, a doll I don’t remember existing but who I will never forget now. I hope Mattel reissues him.

And I know this is shocking to say, but kudos to Mattel itself. Because never could I imagine any company allowing itself to be so brutally mocked in a film as they are in this, the movie they’ve poured their very corporate soul into marketing the hell out of. Are they…good sports? What’s even happening here?

Go see Barbie. If you’re someone who loved Barbie as a kid, you’ll appreciate what the movie has to say. If you’re someone who hated Barbie as a kid, you’ll appreciate what the movie has to say. And if you’ve never cared about Barbie at all, well, maybe now you’ll get it.

Related Posts

You’re Being Followed: The Rise of Influencer Horror

Horror’s love affair with the internet started back when the producers of The Blair Witch Project leveraged a burgeoning online culture to build a viral marketing campaign around the low-budget film. Over two decades later, horror is now turning its attention to the potential terrors that await those met with massive online success. I give you the rise of the…
Read More
four images of Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker from the movie Elvis

What Was Tom Hanks Thinking?

Tom Hanks is unfuckwithable; let’s get that right out of the way. I would say he’s the Tom Brady of actors if that comparison weren’t ludicrous on its face – Tom Brady wishes he were the Tom Hanks of football players, because Tom Hanks is beloved. And now that the shots at Tom Brady are also out of the way,…
Read More

Nothing Feels Finished Anymore

I’ve been reluctant to engage with most mainstream media recently — or to put it another way, I can’t think of the last time I felt compelled to rush out and experience anything fresh upon its release. Sure, you could chalk this up to simple burnout, but I realize now that it’s something else.  Nothing feels finished anymore.  I came…
Read More